A big point of contention with historical films on slavery (or The Black Experience, as it’s sometimes naively called) is the way Hollywood films miss the mark on communicating that experience to a mainstream global audience. These movies usually revolve around African or African Diaspora characters and their history between the start of the slave trade in the 16th century to the present day. In bringing these stories to film, Hollywood mostly employs white filmmakers that struggle to find the voice of the black characters in their film. These characters are usually passive, waiting for a White saviour, as in Amistad (), to change their situation, or are clichéd evildoers (e.g. Captain Phillips) whose motivations are barely put into proper context or are downright immoral.
In light of all this, 12 Years a Slave accomplishes several feats, striving to portray, in earnest, the society in which its protagonist lives, making us experience this historical setting from his perspective. 12 Years a Slave recalls the true story of Solomon Northup, based on his book, a free slave of the state of New York who was sold down the river and lived as a Louisiana slave for 12 years before being liberated. The first innovation of the film is instantly noticeable: both the director (Steve McQueen) and its writer (John Ridley) are of African descent, the former emanating from England, the latter from the US.
John Ridley is a well-known writer in Hollywood. His novel Stray Dogs was turned into the dark film U-turn (1997), directed by Oliver Stone and starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez and Nick Nolte. He wrote the story for David O. Russell’s moral war comedy Three Kings (1999) with George Clooney. He’s also a playwright and has published seven novels. Ridley’s screenplay for 12 Years a Slave is arguably one of the best screenplays of the year. Its dialogues, rich and tempered, feel more inspired by the theatre than films and this only adds to the film’s enjoyment.
The film’s director, Steve McQueen, has burst unto the international scene with the critically acclaimed film Hunger (2008), which also lead to the discovery of Michael Fassbinder. McQueen’s style, subdued and visually masterful, was honed through years of short film productions and art installations. Admittedly, for the director, his brand of filmmaking is dark, but it helps in moodily depicting the world of 12 Years a Slave.
With such a talented creative team behind it, 12 Years a Slave has the makings of an instant classic film. However, looking historically at how Hollywood portrays non-whites, I had a lot of apprehension that the film would still follow Hollywood formulas and portray disparagingly Caucasians in lieu of the Black characters. The film itself is a mixed bag. Although Ridley’s screenplay is an extraordinary achievement, and that the film’s elevated by the presence of artful actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sarah Paulson, it suffers from some of the same afflictions as other Hollywood films in the same category.
INFO: 12 Years a Slave